Biden raises several contentious issues in 1st phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin

U.S. President Joe Biden had his first call with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, raising concerns about the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny while pressing the Russian president on his nation’s involvement in a massive cyberespionage campaign and bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

On a positive note, the two presidents agreed to have their teams work urgently to complete an extension of New START, the last remaining U.S.-Russian arms control treaty, before it expires next month.

“In the nearest days, the parties will complete the necessary procedures that will ensure further functioning” of the pact, the Kremlin said in its readout of the call.

Biden has looked to establish a sharp break from the warm rhetoric often displayed toward Putin by his predecessor, Donald Trump. But the new president also looked to preserve room for diplomacy, telling the Russian leader that the two nations should finalize a five-year extension of New START, according to administration officials who were familiar with the call but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, Biden has not held out hope for a “reset” in relations with Russia but has instead indicated he wants to manage differences with the former Cold War foe without necessarily resolving them or improving ties. And, with a heavy domestic agenda and looming decisions needed on Iran and China, a direct confrontation with Russia is not something he seeks.

US President Donald Trump, left, chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting on Nov. 11, 2017. Biden is seeking to break with his predecessor’s warmer relationship with Putin. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. could impose further sanctions

Moscow reached out last week to request the call, according to the officials. Biden agreed but wanted first to prepare with his staff and speak with European allies, including the leaders of the U.K., France and Germany.

And on Tuesday before his call with Putin, Biden spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, pledging the United States’ commitment to the decades-old alliance founded as a bulwark against Russian aggression.

Biden told Putin that his administration was assessing the SolarWinds hack and the allegations that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan. Biden said the United States is willing to defend itself and will take action, which could include further sanctions, to ensure that Moscow does not act with impunity, according to the administration officials.

The Kremlin’s readout of the call did not address the most contentious issues between the countries, though it said the leaders also discussed other “acute issues on the bilateral and international agenda.” It described the talk as “frank and businesslike” — often a diplomatic way of referring to tense discussions. It also said Putin congratulated Biden on becoming president and “noted that normalization of ties between Russia and the United States would serve the interests of both countries.”

The readout said the two leaders also discussed the coronavirus pandemic, the Iran nuclear agreement, Ukraine and issues related to trade and the economy.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a readout from the White House would be released later in the afternoon.

The call came as Putin considers the aftermath of pro-Navalny protests that took place in more than 100 Russian cities over the weekend. Biden’s team has already reacted strongly to the crackdown on the protests, in which more than 3,700 people were arrested across Russia, including more than 1,400 in Moscow. More protests are planned for the coming weekend.

Biden raised his objection to the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during his call with Putin. (Instagram @NAVALNY/Reuters)

Russia denies poisoning Navalny

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s fiercest critic, was arrested Jan. 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had spent nearly five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Biden has previously condemned the use of chemical weapons.

Russian authorities deny the accusations.

Trump was long enamoured of Putin and sought his approval, frequently casting doubt on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including when he stood next to Putin at their 2018 summit in Helsinki. He also downplayed Russia’s involvement in the hack of federal government agencies last year and the allegations that Russia offered the Taliban bounties.

Despite this conciliatory approach, his administration did impose sanctions on Russia, including Russian companies and business leaders for issues ranging from Ukraine to energy supplies and attacks on dissidents.

Sharp break from Trump

Biden, in his call with Putin, broke sharply with Trump by declaring that he knew that Russia attempted to interfere with both the 2016 and 2020 elections. But he also stressed the need to extend New START. U.S. officials have expressed confidence in reaching a deal, which would provide transparency into each nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Biden on Monday told reporters he hoped the U.S. and Russia could co-operate in areas where both see benefit.

“I find that we can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries as a New START agreement and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behaviour, whether it’s Navalny, whether it’s SolarWinds or reports of bounties on heads of Americans in Afghanistan,” Biden said.

Biden’s approach has met with approval from some former U.S. diplomats who have dealt with Russia and are looking forward to seeing how Biden’s team, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his nominee to be the No. 3 at the U.S. State Department, Victoria Nuland, develops its Russia policy.

Nuland, who held the Europe portfolio at the State Department in President Barack Obama’s second term, is reviled by Putin and his aides in particular for her support of pro-Western politicians in Ukraine. She and Sullivan are said to share opinions about how to deal with Moscow, taking a tough line on human rights and Russia’s intentions in eastern and central Europe while keeping an open channel to the Kremlin on other matters.

“It’s hard but it’s doable,” said Daniel Fried, a U.S. ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the George W. Bush administration. “They’re going to have to figure this out on the fly, but it’s important to pursue New START without hesitation and push back on the Navalny arrest and other issues without guilt.”

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